Sunday, February 20, 2011

Nightmare Seasons

Even though I seem unable to keep myself from buying books (34 this month, and it's not even over yet), there's always a long list of authors whose work I'd like to check out but haven't gotten around to yet.  Until recently, one name on that list was the late Charles L. Grant, known both as an author in his own right and as an editor of anthologies, including the widely-acclaimed Shadows series and the shared-world milieu of Greystone Bay.  I'd read a few Grant stories here and there and been quite impressed by them, especially "If Damon Comes," which was included in David G. Hartwell's mammoth anthology The Dark Descent.  That story, like a sizable chunk of the prolific Grant's work, is set in Oxrun Station, a fictional Connecticut where strange things happen all too often.  When I was looking for items to fill out a large order from Better World Books, I thought of Grant, and ended up ordering Nightmare Seasons and The Black Carousel, two collections of linked novellas set in Oxrun Station.  On Friday night I read all four novellas from Nightmare Seasons in a single feverish sitting.

Which is, in a way, somewhat surprising, since if you'd described the plots of those four novellas to me, I'd probably have said, "Ugh, really?"  In particular, the first of them would sound silly and awful, like a bad Stephen King knock-off, if I told you its concept in a couple straightforward sentences.  (It doesn't help that Grant's titles, while often charming, sometimes feel a little labored; that first novella is "Thou Need Not Fear My Kisses, Love".)  But what sets Grant's approach apart is his subtlety, which finds and exploits the highest dread in even the most gruesome situation.  His prose style, while not, I'm sure, to everyone's taste, seems to me to balance masterfully on the line between poetry and pretension.  Here, for instance, is the opening to the prologue of Nightmare Seasons, the framing device that links the four novellas:

Winter... and rain.
During the blade-sharp days of a January cold snap, during the hours when snow immobilizes and breath turns to short-lived fog, there are the dreams of summer, of green, of walking with no particular purpose except to savor across the playing fields of the park beneath hickory and ash and white birch of such luxuriantly thick foliage that even the stilled air seems hazed with mint.  In part it is a steeled defiance of a numbing temperature that reduces animals to hibernation and man to bitter complaint; and in part it is a hypnotic gesture to the pleading of one's senses for an earnest reassurance that this sort of weather will not last, that there will indeed be a time when warmth beyond the hearth is a reality in spite of the past that it seems now like nothing more, and nothing less, than an attic memory.
But there are worse times than the cold.
And there are worse illusions than memory.
There are the cruel teasing thaws that defy the season with a mercury grin; thaws that banish the snow, fill the streams, oftentimes clear the sky to a taunting deception of June's soft blue.
And when there is no blue, there is the rain.
I must confess, I like that a lot.  A similar gift for language runs through all four novellas, turning an attack by demonic bikers or an antagonist with the power to control lightning into something more than the 80s horror cliche it might initially seem.  Each novella is set in a different season a decade apart-- Spring 1940 through Winter 1970-- and small details of period and weather add to the atmosphere that Grant carefully builds.  And no matter how unusual the plot, the real focus is always on character.  Whether it's a woman trying to maintain her independence while juggling three suitors, an elderly postal employee with nothing ahead of him but work and death, or a young woman hoping to establish a career and friends while overcoming a tragic family history, Grant uses the length offered by the novella format to draw his characters deftly and sympathetically, so that the dark fates that swallow some of them are disturbing rather than garish.

If all of the above isn't enough of a hint as to how much I liked Nightmare Seasons, I'll add that the three latest books of this month's 34, ordered early this morning, were two more Oxrun novella collections and Night Visions 1, which also includes several stories by Grant.  They arrive on Wednesday, and I think I'm going to have a hard time not devouring the first of them that very night.  As far as I'm concerned, Charles L. Grant really is that good.

1 comment:

  1. I discovered Grant through Kirby McAuley's epic Dark Forces horror anthology back in 1981 and over the next decade bought everything of his that I could track down, starting with his short story collection A Glow of Candles. His work could be a bit uneven, and his later stuff seemed sometimes like it was written in an attempt to become more commercial and conventional. He was one of the best horror writers of the '80s, though, and it's a shame that he seems all but forgotten now. (His big feud with the splatterpunk writers probably didn't help his career much, either.)